After the relentless nature of the attacks on her predecessor from the right-wing media, Julia Gillard must find it something of a relief to find that — so far — she is mostly drawing fire from the left. Some of the attacks over the past couple of days, however, seem to be somewhat lacking a sense of perspective.

For the record, let me say first that I’m a supporter of open borders, and I find the John Howard and Tony Abbott style demonisation of refugees to be utterly despicable. From that perspective, the government’s new refugee policy is, of course, disappointing in several respects. But in criticising it, we need to keep in mind some important distinctions.

First, there is a huge moral difference between originating a xenophobic scare campaign and responding to one. The Tampa affair was a creation of the Howard government for desperate political purposes.

Gillard is responding to fears that, however irrationally, are already present. The government has unnecessarily added to those fears, but by way of trying (perhaps ineptly) to defuse the issue. The opposition, by contrast, has poured fuel on the fire.

Secondly, the government’s plan for offshore processing appears to be about real processing, not punitive detention. It will be multilateral, will involve the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and unlike the Howard government’s “Pacific solution” there is no pretence that refugees will not be settled in Australia. While I don’t accept that offshore processing is necessary, I also don’t see that asylum seekers are substantively disadvantaged by it if it’s done lawfully and humanely.

Thirdly, East Timor is not Nauru. It is a relatively natural staging post on the common route of boat people, and unlike Nauru it is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees. It is also, for want of a better term, a real country: Nauru is essentially a big disused phosphate mine, and being sent there, regardless of the trappings, was unmistakably a punishment. East Timor is small, but it is still several hundred times the size of Nauru.

Finally, rhetoric matters. Many commentators pride themselves on their cynicism, and dismiss speeches such as Gillard’s as “only words” (this is the flipside of the politicians’ belief that setting up a working group amounts to “action”). But words can be incredibly important: they shape how people look at the world, and the same facts described in two different ways can have radically different effects.

For immigration minister Chris Evans to say — as he did not once but several times on last night’s 7.30 Report — that “we’re not trying to punish people” is a major step forward. The Howard government made no bones about the fact that its object was deterrence, and the opposition is still proposing measures whose only possible goal is punitive. Rhetoric got us into this mess, and it will have to play a major part in getting us out.

Yes, of course the new policy is a fix designed to clear the decks for an election. That’s hardly news. Despite that, it is also a big improvement over the alternative on offer, and the critics should not lose sight of that fact.

Peter Fray

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